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Enchanted, Secret Art Dazzles

The National Museum of Women in the Arts recently opened two fascinating exhibitions — “Lands of Enchantment: Australian Aboriginal Painting— and “Telling Secrets: Codes, Captions and Conundrums in Contemporary Art.—

“Lands of Enchantment— gives visitors an opportunity to travel through the vibrant folkloric art of indigenous Aborigine people. Much of the work in the exhibit is based on the Aboriginal creation tale called “the dreaming,— which tells how the universe was constructed and the dynamic formation of its landscape. Contemporary artists broaden the ceremonial rituals of this sacred tale from painting on the earth and on the body to placing a canvas on the ground and creating images around its perimeter.

The intriguing works on display highlight the widely used technique of dotting, which originated in the 1970s when Australian Aboriginal people were introduced to a new medium of canvas and acrylic. According to Kathryn Wat, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, the dotting technique could be seen as a way of veiling ancestral secrets. Artists reveal some information of the historic past of their ancestors, but they camouflage the material deemed sacred from non-Aboriginal people in order to keep them at a distance.

Wat’s inspiration for the name of the exhibition was twofold. She wanted to capture the complete absorption of Australian history in its landscape and to illustrate how the owners of the private collection, Ann Shumelda Okerson and James J. O’Donnell, frequently traveled from the United States to Australia and discovered the country’s enchanting landscape. The private home collection of these avid collectors is on public display for the first time.

“Telling Secrets— is a great complement to the “Enchantment— exhibit, offering viewers a chance to draw their own conclusions from enigmatic images. Wat pointed out that “in contemporary art there is a trend to leave the meaning up to the viewer.—

Melissa Miller’s “Broken Wing— (1986) tugs at the heartstrings of visitors. The oil-on-linen painting is a symbolic rendition of animals and creatures behaving like humans. The focus of this work is a swan in distress that is being terrorized from many directions, from the very ground she walks on and predators from the sky above to a host of ungodly skeletons and creatures trailing her every move and awaiting their opportunity to break her wing. Viewers instantly fill in the blanks as they relate to the struggle.

“Love Laughs— (2005) by Jane Hammond, is another engaging work that presents a visualization of 19 proverbs interpreted through vivid images. One proverb, “Cats don’t catch mice to please God,— is illustrated with an overgrown yellow cat walking down the corridor of a church nave and firmly clutching a dead mouse in its mouth.

Wat emphasized that these paintings and 37 other works in the “Telling Secrets— exhibit “showcase contemporary art, which is the fastest-growing part of our collection — its focus is always changing and expanding.—

Both exhibits will run until Jan. 10.

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